The Beekeeper’s Companion Since 1861
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The Classroom

The Classroom – August 2020

- August 1, 2020 - Jamie Ellis - (excerpt)

The Classroom - ABJ - Jamie Ellis
Q  Help for my hive

I live in the Queens NY and have three hives on my roof. This is my 2nd year as a beekeeper and first year having one overwintered colony. When I first opened the hive in mid-March, there was what seemed like grey pollen and some propolis that was brown and seemed grimy to me. I feared it might be foulbrood but when I examined closer a week later under warmer temperatures that was no longer the case. I smelled nothing, did a toothpick test and no longer saw what I did the week before so I dismissed it off as winter moisture. The hive seemed healthy, strong and by May, I added a 3rd box trying to prevent reasons for a swarm. Unfortunately I was too late and a few days later, the hive swarmed and I was unable to retrieve my colony. I watched the hive closely for the next three weeks looking for signs of a new queen without any luck. There was plenty of honey in the top box but almost nothing in the 1st box. Comb was built but there were no signs of brood, pollen, or nectar. I purchased a new queen, and the bees seemed to respond to her well. A week later, I checked on the hive and was not able to see any signs of the new queen, but what I did find again is this grey wet looking pollen in the first box and grimy propolis; 2nd box is decently stocked w/clean comb and honey. Can you have American foulbrood without any brood? Did I just introduce a new queen to a diseased hive? Should I wait and see if she can bring balance to this new hive or try and find her and throw her in a new box with some bees and have her start fresh? Many thanks.

Luis Colón
New York, June


Great questions Luis. First, my guess is that you do not have American foulbrood (AFB) in your hives. A good way to check is to answer questions at and see what matches the website makes. Think of this website like WebMD for bees. It will help you narrow down possibilities based on what you are seeing in the hive. Then, it gives you a few matches that are likely candidates for what you are seeing. Read what it says about each match and try to correlate what you read with what you see. Best-case scenario, you discover what your colony has (if anything abnormal at all) and can remedy the situation.

Based on the information you provided, I think the “grey, wet-looking pollen” is simply a darker pollen that your bees collected, moistened with nectar, and stored in the comb, thus starting the pollen’s conversion to bee bread. Darker pollen stored this way can look grey and wet. So, seeing that is not particularly alarming to me. Honestly, though, I am not sure what you mean by “grimy” propolis. I have seen propolis of all types. In fact, I have seen it so diverse that I have a hard time describing a standard propolis. I know it sounds odd, but without any additional information, “grimy” is within the range of how propolis normally appears.

Regarding your questions about AFB: You, technically, can have it in the hive if brood is not present. The bacteria that causes AFB has a vegetative (active) stage and a dormant (spore) stage. The vegetative stage needs living brood present in order to persist. However, the spore stage can persist for decades in the absence of brood. The vegetative stage kills immature honey bees and produces the range of signs with which we are familiar for AFB: diseased individuals that are ropy, scales (dried or sticky remains of dead immatures), sunken cappings, perforated cappings, rotten smell, etc. It does not sound to me that you have AFB. However, you can see signs of it, even in a broodless hive. Look for scales in the bottoms of cells in what was the brood chamber. If you are not familiar with how these look, Google “AFB scales” and look at the available images. You can also test your colony for AFB using some of the AFB test kits that nearly every beekeeping equipment supplier sells. Finally, work your way through the decision tree to see if what you are seeing in your colony matches AFB.

My guess, though, is that you are just seeing things that are within the range of normal and that adding a queen to the colony is ok. I would wait 4-8 weeks to see if the new queen helps the colony rebound.

My last thought, one we have not addressed, goes to Varroa. Does your colony have a Varroa problem? What are your Varroa numbers? When did you last treat for this mite? If you do not know the answers to these questions, you may have a Varroa problem that you need to remedy. Varroa and the colony-wide problems that accompany it can present so many ways that it may explain what you are seeing.

Q  Ticks in the apiary

I live in central Indiana, in a wooded area, and notice that all my hives have numerous ticks crawling around the outside. What could be attracting them and is there any way to get rid of them? I am getting tired of having them crawling all over my arms every time I do an inspection.

Jim Pierce
Indiana, June


Interesting question Jim. I have been keeping bees for 30 years and have never seen ticks on hives. Furthermore, I rarely, if ever, get ticks on me while working in bee yards. Sounds like you are seeing the opposite.

I did a quick search for information on this topic and could not find anything that suggests ticks are attracted to hives. They are, some say, attracted to light colors. Maybe they can be attracted to white hives. I have just never seen this myself.

Given the issue you are facing, I would recommend wearing a tick repellent when working your hives. Some people worry about the impact mosquito and tick repellents may have on bees, but I have not heard or seen any evidence to suggest that these repellents would/could harm bees if used according to label. Neither have I seen bees be more defensive when worked by a beekeeper wearing repellent. Thus, I recommend wearing repellent and this should solve most of your problems, though it will not stop them from getting on your hives. Be sure and check the label to confirm its active ingredient is not toxic to bees. Always follow the label (the label is the law).

Perhaps consider saving a few of the ticks in alcohol and giving them to your local county extension agent. They should be able to identify the ticks for you and give you some basic recommendations on how to keep them out of the apiary. You should be able to find your local agent by Googling “county extension agent [your county, your state].” Most counties in the U.S. have a county extension office staffed by agents who are available to help with situations just like this.

Varroa control and getting the bees to move honey

Greetings from Minnesota. I have two questions for you.

First question: Assuming mite levels are not high, how effective is using drone comb for controlling Varroa in the early spring? After the honey flow, I plan to use formic acid pads, and then oxalic acid late in the Fall.

Second question: Is there a way to get bees to move honey from supers, some of which have sealed combs, down into the brood boxes after the honey flow?

Joe Schultz
Minnesota, June


First question: For the benefit of the readers, drone brood removal works on the premise that Varroa are more attracted to drone brood than they are to worker brood. You can purchase drone foundation and get the bees to draw drone comb on it. People who practice drone brood removal put one frame of drone comb in a hive. The queen will lay drone eggs in the frame. Varroa will preferentially invade the drone cells as the brood ages. Once the bees cap all the drone larvae on the frame, you can remove the frame from the hive, freeze it for 48 hours, and return the frame to the hive. The bees will remove the dead drone brood/Varroa from the comb and the queen will lay drone eggs in it again. You simply repeat this process every 21-28 days. By doing this, you are constantly removing a reasonable percentage of Varroa from your hive.

The Honey Bee Health Coalition team developed a fantastic guide on Varroa management. You can find it by Googling “Honey Bee Health Coalition Tools for Varroa Management.” I point you there because this site includes a pdf of a document in which all available treatments and their seasonal efficacies are noted. The authors of that document say that drone brood removal is “highly effective” when your colony has a population increase (i.e. in spring). There is a table dedicated to drone brood removal at the end of the document. They also have a video about it on the website. As you know, drone brood removal is somewhat labor intensive. However, it seems to be effective early in the season when Varroa populations are low. Check out the document and video for more information on this technique.

Second question: I am not aware of any way to accomplish this while the supers are still on the hive. You can remove the supers, place them in the apiary, and allow the bees to rob the supers. If the hive is composed of a single deep at this time, all honey robbed will be stored in it. However, you can lose some of the honey to other colonies (including colonies that are not yours) if you do this. Some beekeepers extract the honey and feed it back to the hives. If no supers are on the hive when you do this, the bees will have no other choice than to store the honey in the deep box that they have.

Q  The benefits of propolis to honey bees

Several honeybee experts, including a few on your Two Bees in a Pod podcasts, have suggested that propolis, with its antibacterial and antifungal properties, is a valuable commodity in a honeybee colony. But our bees may have been selected — for the convenience of beekeepers — over many generations to reduce production of propolis. Having rough-textured inner surfaces of the hive boxes is one suggestion to increase the amount of propolis, and is proposed as a best management practice. But before we rush out to scratch up the smooth sanded surfaces of our hives, is it fair to ask whether this hypothesis has been proven empirically? Has anyone performed a head-to-head comparison of smooth- vs. rough-surfaced hives to demonstrate a) that significantly more propolis is present in rough-surfaced hives, and b) that increased propolis demonstrably improves colony health?

David W. Lewis
Wyoming, June


Dr. Marla Spivak, University of Minnesota, is a world expert on this topic. In fact, the comments you make are all rooted in Dr. Spivak’s and her team’s findings. She conducted, in fact, the very study you ask about in your question. You can find it here: She and her colleagues painted propolis extract on the walls of hives and compared colonies housed in those hives to colonies housed in hives without the extracts. In this study, they stated that